From the Roadshow archives: Bed of flowers puts the brakes on Highway 85 commute

“You could see the idiots jerking their heads to the right to see the damn things. It stopped everyone.”

Mr. Roadshow wanted to share some of his favorite columns and stories from his more than 30 years of informing, entertaining, and changing things for drivers in the Bay Area (and beyond). He’ll be back on the road soon with new material. Meanwhile, please continue to send Mr. Roadshow your comments and questions to This story was first published on October 21, 1994.

This one will live in the annals of Highway 85.

The first horrendous traffic jam on the sparkling new freeway on the first morning commute was caused by:

Pansies, not a serious accident, not a cop pulling someone over.

Slowing drivers stopped to look at a roadside display of yellow and purple flowers brought all northbound lanes to a halt Thursday morning. Caltrans officials are furious that a floral arrangement has turned their gleaming new freeway into a parking lot, and they intend to remove the pansies as soon as possible.

The 6-by-46-foot pansy bed spelled “Campbell” was left over from Saturday’s freeway party between Winchester Boulevard and Saratoga Avenue. They constructed a two-mile backup that began at 7:15 a.m. and lasted for more than two hours.

“You could see the idiots jerking their heads to the right to see the damn things,” said Sue Taft of San Jose, an enraged commuter. “It stopped everyone.”

However, the flowers were only part of the story on Highway 85’s second day. Following an easy first day’s commute, traffic was fantastic in South San Jose, awful in Campbell, and unbearable on the old portion of Highway 85 north of Cupertino. The final five miles from Cupertino to Mountain View took 17 minutes.

Oh, and the metering lights. There were 50 to 60-car backups on the metered ramps connecting Highway 85 and Highway 101 in South San Jose in the morning, and similar jams at the two on-ramps from Blossom Hill Road.

Karen Kessel of Cupertino said, “I was totally shocked to read that 85 was a breeze” in Thursday’s newspaper. “It more than quadrupled my commute.” It’s not going to be easy for me. It’s a calamity.”

However, many people found the new Highway 85 to be a breeze on Thursday. Then the speeding drivers ran into their match: the pansies.

Cars driving past Campbell took 11 minutes to creep 1 1/2 miles at 7:30 a.m. The top speed was never more than 10 mph. It took 15 minutes to travel two miles at 9:15 a.m., when morning rush hour usually begins to ease.

Glenn Pruitt, the construction manager for the local agency that built Highway 85, was driving past Winchester Boulevard at the time. He recognized the issue with a single glance.

“Amazing,” he exclaimed. “I was surprised by how surprised people were by these flowers.” But you had to slow down if you wanted to read what they wrote.”

They succeeded. The first part of the morning drive from South San Jose felt like a Sunday drive, with cars in the slow lane going 67 mph. But then there was a sea of red lights.

The flowers were planted right at eye level on a brown earth berm. Even the carpool lane came to a complete halt. Traffic quickly increased to the speed limit after cars pulled five feet past the flower bed.

The pansies were not an issue for the evening drive because most cars heading home use the southbound lane, where they are more difficult to see. The morning tie-up, on the other hand, had the South Bay buzzing.

“When I walked in today, the first thing the people out front said to me was, ‘Did you hear the news about the flowers?” Nelson Fialho, an administrative analyst in Campbell, agreed.

Fialho stated that the city hoped to keep the flowers, but the berm is under the control of Caltrans, and the state wanted them removed. They were supposed to be removed days ago, but the flowers were overlooked in the last-minute rush to open the freeway.

Then, on Thursday, everyone took a look.

And a freeway was brought to a halt.

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